A pair of counties in the D.C. suburbs are considering pushing back high school start times, potentially joining a number of districts around the country that have switched to later school days to improve student achievement.
School officials in Montgomery County announced last week they are forming a work group to study the issue after parents collected more than 10,000 signatures urging the county to move its 7:25 a.m. high school start time to no earlier than 8:15 a.m.
The county is wading into the issue slowly over concerns that a change could affect bus routes, after-school activities and family schedules. Supporters say many teens across the country are getting too little sleep and that later starts will make them better rested and more alert throughout the day.
"It is beneficial to their physical health, their mental health and their academic health," said Fairfax County School Board member Sandy Evans, whose county is also considering moving back its start time. "This [early schedule] just can't be good for teenagers."
Last spring, officials in Fairfax County — where many high schools start as early as 7:20 a.m. — set out plans to hire a consultant to lead a study on school start times, but they have yet to do so.
Ms. Evans, who in 2004 co-founded the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP) to advocate for a later start in the county, said the board hopes to have a report done by next spring.
Calls for later start times have become increasingly common around the U.S. in recent years. Studies have shown that adolescents typically need more sleep than younger children or adults, and that lack of sleep makes it harder for them to learn and even endangers their mental and physical health.
The average teen needs as much as 91/2 hours of sleep but gets fewer than seven hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The solution is not as simple as earlier bed times, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota, because teens' brains are wired to make them night owls.
The university's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, which has conducted numerous studies on the issue since 1996, says that the sleep-inducing brain chemical melatonin is only secreted in adolescents from about 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., making them more likely to stay up late and then doze during their first-period classes.
School boards from Rochester, N.H., to Long Beach, Calif., are mulling later starts. Many others have already taken the plunge — including Northern Virginia's Arlington and Loudoun counties, which start high school at 8:15 a.m. and 9 a.m. respectively.
In Stillwater, Okla., school board officials voted last week to start high school at 9 a.m. next year, an hour later than usual. They will also push back the start time of middle school to 8:30 a.m., rather than its current 7:55 a.m. start.
School districts in Minneapolis and Jessamine County, Ky., are among those that pushed back start times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They say it has helped improve grades and reduce tardiness.
"We were seeing kids dragging in each morning and looking very sleep-deprived," said Jessamine County Schools Superintendent Lu Young, whose district moved high school start times from 7:40 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. in 2003. "We really do believe it was an excellent move and we've had no regrets."
Few parents and officials dispute the research in favor of late start times. Many worry that a switch would be difficult to implement and could disrupt morning and afternoon bus schedules, which are often planned to allow time windows for drivers to pick up and drop off elementary, middle and high school students.
Critics also say that a later end to the high school day could also give teens less time for after-school sports and extracurricular activities, and prevent them from performing household duties or watching after younger siblings during late-afternoon hours.
Ms. Young said there has been little disruption in her county, despite early concerns that came primarily from athletic coaches who thought a later schedule would cut into time for sports and discourage student participation.
"That just really hasn't materialized as a problem," she said. "We rarely get complaints."
Fairfax County School Board member Ted Velkoff said he is open to discussing later start times but said there are other factors at play in students' lack of rest, including poor sleep habits at home and traffic patterns and school boundaries that force longer commutes.
He said that while high school students need more rest, the community should weigh the issue carefully before deciding how to achieve that goal.
"There is no dispute over the science. Everyone agrees that kids need to get enough sleep," Mr. Velkoff said. "But the community has to decide if there's going to be enough benefit from the change to be worth the disruption."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.